Welcome to the Marvelous City, as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is frequently known. Situated on Guanabara Bay in the southern tropics, Rio is home to a metro area of 13 million people and a city population of about 8 million cariocas (residents of Rio). Long the cultural capital of Brazil, it is the birthplace of samba, the Brazilian national music, and bossa nova, the 1950s modern cool of a rising middle class that signaled Brazil as the country of the future. Its postcard beaches greet millions of tourists and locals alike every year for an intoxicating mix of sun, sand, surf, and swimwear. While tourism is a major economic engine, Rio is also home to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. Likewise, the city is the base of operations for offshore exploration of the massive Tupi oil field, the largest discovery in the Western Hemisphere in 30 years. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva called the find “a second independence for Brazil,” already a country that is energy independent, with many of its cars running on sugarcane ethanol or propane.
There is much to marvel at in Rio, but another, perhaps more accurate nickname, is the Cidade Partida (Divided City). Beyond the beachfront, the urban periphery is dramatically poorer from the posh enclaves of Ipanema and Leblon. In particular, one-third to one-fourth of residents live in 1,000+ favelas that ranges from extremely developed, quasi-formal communities like Rocinha, to fresh collections of improvised housing still unknown to cartographers. Violence plagues the majority of these communities, as police power is wielded not by the government but by armed, organized criminal factions that control the lucrative drug trade. This seemingly Sisyphean conflict leaves favelados in a classic rock and hard place situation. If there is a truism to the War for Rio, as the newspapers sometimes call the gunfights between police and gangs, it is Elizabeth Leeds’ understated comment: “Squatter populations in particular are caught between the illegal violence of drug dealers and the official violence of security forces.” Nevertheless, favelas hold a place in the carioca cultural imagination – indeed samba really got its groove in the favelas, and more recently gave birth to funk carioca, a kind of syncopated hip-hop derived from Miami bass.
Moreover, there are some potential bright spots since the awarding of the 2014 World Cup to Brazil (with the finals at Rio’s famous Maracanã stadium) and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to Rio itself, a major coup as the first city in South America to host the Olympics. Police efforts to neutralize some strategic favelas has been coupled with a community policing project, Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP). Meanwhile, the federal PAC (Programma de Acceleração de Crescimento, or Accelerated Growth Program) is currently making infrastructure investments in the midst of some of Rio’s largest and neediest communities. Finally, the choque de ordem (order blitz) has been cracking down on abandoned cars, irregular construction, and informal economy activity citywide for over a year, to the applause of some that Rio is cleaning up its act, and to the chagrin of others that it is losing some of its soul. The jury is still out, however, on how sustained these efforts will be and how much substantial social change will result form them. Already, the traditional Olympic specter of slum clearance has reared its ugly ahead in the face of the Vila Autódromo, a favela without drug trafficking problems that is slated for demolition as part of the Rio2016 master plan.
These are heady times of transition if not transformation for Rio, truly one of the world’s great cities but also a microcosm of many of the urban world’s most pressing challenges to housing, the environment, transportation, social equity, the built environment, and economic growth. Consequently, it has yet another feather in its cap on the international scene as home to World Urban Forum 5 from March 22-26. With the theme “Right to the City – Bridging the Urban Divide,” Rio is an ideal venue to address the multifaceted topic of sustainable urbanization. Please follow along as the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) live blogs the World Urban Forum for Next American City. We will keep you up to date on insights from sessions, inform you of major initiative launches, and send back a few postcards from Rio – the marvelous and divided city alike.